Benedict XVI Asks Abuse Survivors for Forgiveness as Advisers Defend Handling of Munich Cases

The letter was accompanied by a three-page rebuttal of the criticisms contained in the Munich abuse report, signed by four advisers of the pope emeritus.

Pope emeritus Benedict XVI.
Pope emeritus Benedict XVI. (photo: Paul Badde/CNA / EWTN)

VATICAN CITY — Pope emeritus Benedict XVI personally requested forgiveness from abuse survivors on Tuesday in a letter responding to a report that faulted his handling of abuse cases during his tenure as Munich archbishop from 1977 to 1982.

In an almost 1,000-word letter released on Feb. 8, the 94-year-old retired Pope said that his pain was all the greater as he had “borne great responsibility in the Catholic Church,” reported CNA Deutsch, CNA’s German-language news partner. 

The letter was accompanied by a three-page rebuttal of the criticisms contained in the Munich abuse report, signed by four advisers of the pope emeritus.  

They insisted that he was not aware of “aware of sexual abuse committed or suspicion of sexual abuse committed by priests” in any of the cases mentioned in the report. 

They also said that he “did not lie or knowingly make a false statement” regarding his presence at a disputed meeting in 1980 concerning the transfer of a priest accused of abuse to the Munich Archdiocese. 

A ‘Heartfelt Request for Forgiveness’

In his letter, Benedict XVI noted that the celebration of Mass begins with a Penitential Act in which Catholics ask God’s forgiveness, confessing that they have greatly sinned “through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault.”

“In all my meetings, especially during my many apostolic journeys, with victims of sexual abuse by priests, I have seen at first hand the effects of a most grievous fault,” he wrote in the letter dated Feb. 6.

“And I have come to understand that we ourselves are drawn into this grievous fault whenever we neglect it or fail to confront it with the necessary decisiveness and responsibility, as too often happened and continues to happen.”

“As in those meetings, once again I can only express to all the victims of sexual abuse my profound shame, my deep sorrow and my heartfelt request for forgiveness.” 

“I have had great responsibilities in the Catholic Church. All the greater is my pain for the abuses and the errors that occurred in those different places during the time of my mandate.” 

“Each individual case of sexual abuse is appalling and irreparable. The victims of sexual abuse have my deepest sympathy and I feel great sorrow for each individual case.”

Accusations of Misconduct

The study, entitled “Report on the Sexual Abuse of Minors and Vulnerable Adults by Clerics, as well as [other] Employees, in the Archdiocese of Munich and Freising from 1945 to 2019,” was unveiled at a press conference in Munich, southern Germany, on Jan. 20.

The more than 1,000-page report, compiled by the Munich law firm Westpfahl Spilker Wastl, identified at least 497 victims of abuse, as well as 235 alleged perpetrators, including 173 priests.

Benedict XVI signed an 82-page statement that was submitted to researchers compiling the report.

Speaking at the press conference, lawyer Martin Pusch said that Benedict XVI, then known as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, “can be accused of misconduct” in four cases.

He said that in two of the cases, clerics committed abuse while Cardinal Ratzinger was in office. While they were criminally sanctioned by secular courts, they continued to perform pastoral duties, he said, and no action was taken against them under canon law.

In a third case, a cleric convicted by a foreign court worked in the Munich Archdiocese. Pusch suggested that the cardinal knew of the priest’s history.

The fourth case related to a priest named Father Peter Hullermann, who is accused of abusing at least 23 boys aged eight to 16 between 1973 and 1996.

The case was first highlighted by the media in 2010, when Benedict XVI was pope, and again in January.

The statement signed by the retired Pope insisted that he was not present at a meeting in 1980, at which the priest’s transfer from the Diocese of Essen to the Munich Archdiocese was discussed.

But days after the report’s publication, the Pope emeritus acknowledged that he had attended the meeting. In a Jan. 24 statement, he indicated that the mistake was the result of an editing error.

The correction prompted uproar in Germany, with critics of Benedict XVI accusing him of covering up his presence at the meeting and supporters pointing out that his attendance had already been established.

German Church leaders, including bishops’ conference president Bishop Georg Bätzing, demanded that the retired pope respond to the Munich study’s criticisms. 

Support from Pope Francis

In his letter, Benedict XVI said that he was deeply affected by the reaction to “the oversight,” which he said had been “exploited to cast doubt on my truthfulness, even to portray me as a liar.”

He said he had received many messages of support and was I “particularly grateful for the confidence, support and prayer that Pope Francis personally expressed to me.”

He underlined his confidence in his advisers who had helped him to prepare the 82-page statement. 

“In addition to responding to the questions posed by the law firm, this also demanded reading and analyzing almost 8,000 pages of documents in digital format,” he said. 

“These assistants then helped me to study and analyze the almost 2,000 pages of expert opinions. The results will be published subsequently as an appendix to my letter.”

He said that the error concerning his presence at the meeting did not “detract from the care and diligence that, for those friends, were and continue to be an evident and absolute imperative.”

Response to the Munich Report’s Criticisms

In their 1,300-word analysis of the Munich abuse report, Benedict XVI’s advisers defended his actions in all four cases highlighted by the study. 

They insisted that at the time of the 1980 meeting the future pope was not aware that Father Hullermann — who they identified only as “Priest X.” — was an abuser or that he would be admitted to “pastoral activity” in the Munich Archdiocese.

“It was exclusively a question of the accommodation of the young Priest X. in Munich because he had to undergo therapy there. This request was complied with. During the meeting the reason for the therapy was not mentioned. It was therefore not decided at the meeting to engage the abuser in pastoral work,” they wrote.

The advisers underlined that Benedict XVI “did not lie or knowingly make a false statement” regarding the meeting and said that the mistake was the result of a “transcription error.”

“One cannot impute this transcription error to Benedict XVI as a conscious false statement or ‘lie,’” the advisers insisted.

They also denied that Benedict knew at the time that the priests in the other three cases were abusers.

“In none of the cases analyzed by the expert report was Joseph Ratzinger aware of sexual abuse committed or suspicion of sexual abuse committed by priests,” they wrote. 

“The expert report provides no evidence to the contrary.”

They also responded to widespread criticism that the pope emeritus had downplayed the “exhibitionist behavior” of a priest in one case.

“In the memoir, in fact, Benedict XVI says with the utmost clarity that abuses, including exhibitionism, are ‘terrible,’ ‘sinful,’ ‘morally reprehensible,’ and ‘irreparable,’” they noted.

“In the canonical evaluation of the event, inserted into the memoir by us the collaborators and expressed according to our judgment, there was only a desire to recall that according to the canon law then in force, exhibitionism was not a crime in the restricted sense, because the relevant penal norm did not include in the case in point behavior of that type.”

Benedict XVI’s Record as Pope

After leaving the Archdiocese of Munich in 1982, the Cardinal Ratzinger served as prefect of the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith before his election as pope in 2005. 

During his almost eight-year pontificate, he dismissed hundreds of abusers from the clerical state, met abuse survivors during his foreign trips, and addressed the abuse crisis in Ireland in a landmark 2010 pastoral letter.

Benedict XVI retired in 2013 and has since lived in relative seclusion at the Vatican.

The Vatican published an editorial on the Munich abuse report on Jan. 26 highlighting Benedict’s role in combating clerical abuse.

The editorial, signed by Andrea Tornielli, the editorial director of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Communication, cautioned against “the search for easy scapegoats and summary judgments.”

He wrote: “It was Benedict XVI, even against the opinion of many self-styled ‘Ratzingerians,’ who upheld, in the midst of the storm of scandals in Ireland and Germany, the face of a penitential Church, which humbles itself in asking for forgiveness, which feels dismay, remorse, pain, compassion, and closeness.”

The ‘Hour of Judgment’

Concluding his letter, Benedict, who turns 95 on April 16, looked ahead to his judgment before God.

“Quite soon, I shall find myself before the final judge of my life. Even though, as I look back on my long life, I can have great reason for fear and trembling, I am nonetheless of good cheer, for I trust firmly that the Lord is not only the just judge, but also the friend and brother who himself has already suffered for my shortcomings, and is thus also my advocate, my ‘Paraclete,’ he wrote. 

“In light of the hour of judgment, the grace of being a Christian becomes all the more clear to me. It grants me knowledge, and indeed friendship, with the judge of my life, and thus allows me to pass confidently through the dark door of death.” 

“In this regard, I am constantly reminded of what John tells us at the beginning of the Apocalypse: he sees the Son of Man in all his grandeur and falls at his feet as though dead. Yet He, placing his right hand on him, says to him: ‘Do not be afraid! It is I…’”